An epic masterpiece.
Set in a near-future U.S.A., Ayn Rand’s thrilling masterpiece features the mysterious disappearance of the top innovators and industrialists—and demonstrates a new moral philosophy: the morality of rational self-interest.
Why Businessmen Need Philosophy
The capitalist’s guide to the ideas behind Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged
Essays on Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged
This is the first scholarly study of Atlas Shrugged, covering the historical, literary, and philosophical aspects of Ayn Rand’s magnum opus. Topics include: the novel’s creation, publication, and reception; its nature as a romantic novel; and its presentation of a radical new philosophy.
The history of Atlas Shrugged
An essay on the genesis of the book.
The History of Atlas Shrugged: An Essay on the Genesis of the Book
Also, it was “completely detached from any journalistic reality,” compared, for example, to The Fountainhead, which mentioned specific years and was tied to a particular historical period. “I personally feel most at home,” she said, “where everything is made by me—everything except the metaphysical human abstraction. In other words, it has to be things as they might be, but from then on, I want them to be as they ought to be. As I want to make them. I don’t like being tied to the choices of other people; that is what it amounts to. When you go into cultural issues, it’s really the choices of others. And I want to be in my own universe of my own abstractions, so that even the villains are stylized by me.”
The friend was urging Miss Rand to write a nonfiction work on her philosophy, something she had no interest in doing at that time. When the friend insisted that it was Ayn Rand’s “duty” because her readers “needed it,” she responded: “Oh, they do? What if I went on strike? What if all the creative minds of the world went on strike?” “That,” she told her friend, “would make a good novel.” By the next morning, “the mind on strike” had become the theme of her next novel.
At first, Ayn Rand thought that Atlas Shrugged would be a “political and social novel” and would merely apply the individualistic philosophy of The Fountainhead to politics and economics. But as she began to think about her theme, she realized “that there was a great deal more to say than merely what I had said in The Fountainhead. Merely the idea of selfishness and individualism isn’t enough for the philosophical framework for this kind of story. Much more had to be explained.”
When she began concretizing her theme of “the mind on strike,” she had to answer the question of what exactly is the role of the mind in human existence. “It’s then I began to see that this is going to be a very important and new philosophical novel, that it ceased being a stunt novel in my mind.” But she still thought this novel would be shorter than The Fountainhead. (Atlas Shrugged turned out to be 55 percent longer than The Fountainhead.)
Therefore, I had to choose the kind of characters that would enact that kind of story. . . . It took me quite a long time in thinking out the plot to decide who will be the characters. Galt and Dagny were the two set almost immediately. I can’t remember when the character of Galt occurred to me. It feels as if it was always there. When I can’t remember the origin of anything in my novel, it’s usually the case that it’s so intrinsic a part of the story that I can’t separate the assignment from this particular idea, that the idea had to be there before the story started to gel at all. Galt was almost simultaneous with the conception of the story of the strike. And Dagny the next one, what kind of woman heroine.”
Ragnar Danneskjöld: To Ayn Rand, Ragnar was the avenger: “He would be the symbol of the helpless indignation that all of us feel and that any victim feels or anyone feels morally against evil. And I thought now what would justify a superior type of man into choosing a career of violence, what would be the real justifiable, psychological base for it?” Her answer: “Enormous indignation.” Ragnar’s dominant quality as avenging angel was justice, “in the same way as Francisco [d'Anconia's] dominant quality had to be enjoyment of this earth. I could understand what would motivate a man to become a pirate or to indulge in war or physical violence. So that was to be the key. A man who could not stand the rule of evil.”
Dagny Taggart: Whereas Dominique Francon in The Fountainhead was, she often said, herself in a bad mood, Dagny was “myself with any possible flaws eliminated. Myself without—if you ask me which flaws, to name consciously—without my tiredness, without my chronic, slightly anti-material feeling, you know, that which I consider in me the ivory tower I want, or the theoretician versus the man of action. It would be myself without a moment of exhaustion. In a way, you know what prompted the selection of Dagny is that I was somewhat frustrated in a literary way, I say only somewhat, by the fact that Roark was my representation of an ideal man, but Dominique was not my ideal woman. She was a woman I considered good, but not ideal—you know the difference. Dagny was always the type that I intended to present some day as my ideal woman—or as the feminine Roark, in effect.”
Lillian Rearden: She was created, said Miss Rand, “out of Adam’s rib.” “If Rearden was to be the symbol of the victimized industrialist, then, in his personal life, his antagonist had to be the liberal intellectual, pseudo-intellectual. Lillian, to me, was to be the archetype of the New Yorker [magazine] crowd.”
The Wet Nurse: “There was only one minor character, which is an exception in my whole writing career, that is, a character that started without my intention, that wrote himself, in a way. That’s very funny. It’s an odd experience for me. Someone who came out of the material without my intention, sort of, you know, the way inspirational writers describe? That’s the wet nurse.” The Wet Nurse came to her when she was presenting the events surrounding the controls placed on Rearden metal. “All that I intended at the time was to describe the kind of modern, young, college-boy bureaucrat that was assigned to Rearden steel.” He was to be a “young liberal,” in charge of a man like Rearden.
When she began to describe him, she became more interested in him, and he became more than a bureaucrat. “Then, as I began to have scenes between him and Rearden—remember their first scenes and that kind of peculiar humor that Rearden assumes towards him—that he began to interest me enormously. And it grew. But, you see, without my intention. In other words, first by the logic of what I was presenting, it was irresistible that this fool kid is going to have admiration for Rearden. The moment I realized that, I was interested in the character.”
Other minor characters: Robert Stadler was inspired, in a way, by J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atom bomb, whom Ayn Rand had interviewed in 1947 as research for a screenplay she was writing: “Oppenheimer was helpful in fixing the image in my mind, although the abstraction was there before.” Eleanor Roosevelt served the same purpose for Ma Chalmers, as did President Harry S. Truman for Mr. Thompson.
While she was devising the details of the plot, she continued to do research on the various industries involved, “because you couldn’t work a whole day [and do] nothing but sit and think of the plot. That was my systematic assignment, and I did a lot of walking around the garden in California.” She devised most of the plot while walking through the alfalfa fields on her property in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles: “Within five months of the first systematic work on the plot, I had it done, which I, at the time, considered enormous relief, which it was.”
“You may remember that at our meeting in New York, almost a year ago, you graciously said that you would assist me in getting factual information for my new novel which deals with railroads. I am now ready to take advantage of it.
“I have completed the outline of my novel, and am about to start the actual writing, but I have a number of questions, which I would like to discuss with a railroad man. Could you give me an introduction to someone in Los Angeles who would be willing to be bothered for information? I am interested mainly in the problems of the management of a large railroad system, so I would like to speak to an executive familiar with these problems. I would prefer to speak to a man who shares our political views, since my novel will be a most violent defense of free industry, private industrialists and private railroads. I have read, with great interest and pleasure, your two books, This Fascinating Railroad Business and Trains. Are there any particular books dealing specifically with the problems of railroad management which you would advise me to read? Also, can you tell me where I can obtain some copies of the railroad magazines put out for employees, such as the Santa Fe magazine? I understand that those are not available to laymen, and I would like to see a few numbers, just to get an idea of their tone and nature.”
Her research was not restricted to reading and interviews. In a 1948 letter to a friend, writer Isabel Paterson, she described her ride in the engine of a New York Central engine:
“Now I promised to tell you about my trip in the locomotive. I will not attempt to describe how it felt, except to say that it was the greatest experience of my life. . . . The most thrilling moment was when the engine started moving, and the ride through the underground tunnel out of Grand Central. Everything I thought of as heroic about man’s technological achievements was there concretely for me to feel for the first time in my life.
“At Harmon [New York], they changed the engines, and I got into my first diesel. Their efficiency was amazing. It took just a few minutes. Everybody seemed to know about me in advance, and they switched me around as quickly as they did the engines. The moment I got into the diesel, they took pictures of me leaning out of the cab window. The crew of the diesel had the same attitude as the one in the electric engine. I had been afraid that they might regard me as a nuisance, but they seemed to enjoy my presence as much as I did. They were patronizingly amused, very superior and very glad to be asked any kind of questions.
“The company had sent a road foreman along to give me all the explanations. He took me through the diesel units behind the engine, and I saw everything—all the motors, the high voltage, the boiling oil and every sort of gadget that I couldn’t possibly understand, but the total effect was magnificent. The noise in the motor units is unbelievable. You can’t speak at all—the man could only point at things silently. As to riding in the cab—it is much more comfortable than in the best compartment. There is less shaking, not too much noise and the engine rides as if it were floating. It actually seems to glide; you don’t feel the wheels under you at all. Every time the engine started, I tried to catch the moment of the start and couldn’t; it starts as smoothly as that. Incidentally, the fireman gave me his chair, and it is an upholstered leather armchair, more comfortable than any in the best tycoon’s office. . . .
“The next morning, I had to get up at 6 o’clock and got into the engine again at Elkhart, Indiana. During the night, they had had their first snowstorm. It was still dark when we started riding through the snow. There was a different crew and a new road foreman. These people had the best time with me. The following is strictly confidential—I don’t want to get them in trouble: They put me into the engineer’s seat and let me drive the engine myself. Believe it or not, I have now driven the Twentieth Century Limited. They let me start the engine from a small station and, of course, there were three men standing behind me watching every move, but still nobody touched a lever except me, and I started the train and accelerated it to 80 miles per hour. The men apologized that they couldn’t give me a real ride, because they were ahead of schedule, so they couldn’t go faster than 80 miles.
“Otherwise, they said, they could have shown me a speed of 120 miles per hour. I think 80 miles was nice enough, but actually I couldn’t tell that we were going that fast. It was extremely smooth and the only sign of speed was that the signal lights seemed to be coming along every few seconds. The men were as anxious to show me everything as I was to see it. The road foreman broke the seal on a special gadget that registers the speed of the train, to show me how it worked. This was strictly against regulations. There was a diesel inspector who traveled most of the time in the motor units. He came up a few minutes later, saw the broken seal and remarked that it was broken.
Whereupon the road foreman said with the most innocent look I have ever seen, ‘Yeah, something happened to it.’ Later, they took me down into the very front nose of the diesel, which is under the headlight. It is a kind of secret compartment, and they showed me how the headlight worked. That was something special which I needed to know for my story. The fireman complained that his job wasn’t much; he had nothing to do on a trip except sit in his chair. I said that that would be an ideal job for a writer who could sit there and work out the plot of a story, and I asked why didn’t he try to write a book. He said, ‘Why should I? The Government would take it all in taxes.’ Now there is common sense from the alleged common man.”
In that same letter, she described her visit to a steel mill:
“In Chicago, I had a marvelous time on my visit to the Inland Steel plant. That was a real steel mill, not at all like Mr. Kaiser’s WPA project in Fontana [California]. It’s funny that I knew that the Fontana plant was a phony, even though I had never seen a real steel plant before. The General Manager of Inland Steel arranged a luncheon, at which I met all the top executives of the plant. These were not the financiers or the directors, but the real working executives of the mills—the chief metallurgist, the chief superintendent, etc. I was the only woman at the luncheon, so you know how I would have liked that. I think they were more amazed by me than I was by seeing steel being poured and by all the rest of the things they showed me, which were truly magnificent. What amazed those men were my political views—the extent to which I am a ‘reactionary.’
“They simply could not believe that there was any “intellectual” who intended to glorify them in a book. They seemed to be wearily resigned to getting nothing but smears from writers. They were all conservatives and in quite an intelligent way. The stories they told me about their problems with regulations and regimentations are simply hair-raising. Here is a sample: The ICC now controls the distribution of freight cars. They have threatened an embargo on freight cars for deliveries to steel plants, which, if put into effect, would stop the entire steel production of the country. The excuse given is that the steel companies do not empty freight cars fast enough. The real reason—the bureaucrats want freight cars for coal, to ship the coal to Europe. This is an example of stopping a country’s production for the sake of looting—an example which nothing I invent in my book could equal.”
In a letter to her tax attorney, she listed other research she conducted in 1947:
“Inspection tour of Grand Central Terminal, particularly the underground track systems, under the guidance of F. W. Bingman of N.Y. Central;
“Trip to Little Falls, N.Y., for the opening of the Little Falls Project (construction of new rail curve) with the executives of the N.Y. Central Railroad—and interview with A. H. Wright, then vice president in charge of operations;
“Interviews with C. R. Dugan, manager, public relations, N.Y. Central, Raymond F. Blosser, manager, press bureau, Henry Doherty of press bureau;
“Showing of special educational films produced by N.Y. Central on the subjects of: railroad engines, track, signals, freight yards;
“Interview with K. A. Borntrager, Manager, Freight Transportation, N.Y. Central.”
Hiram Haydn, a former Bobbs-Merrill editor now with the very prestigious Random House, had been “courting” Ayn Rand for years and trying to get Atlas Shrugged for his current employer. Miss Rand’s agent, Alan Collins, discouraged her from meeting with Random House, primarily because her book might get “lost” among Random’s large list of books. As Ayn Rand recalled, “So, Alan told them openly that he didn’t consider the house right for this particular book and therefore he was against [a meeting]. Now I admire Hiram Haydn for the courage of calling me after that. And he told me he knew it’s against publishing etiquette, but he would like to know why we refused, and he would like to at least have a chance to insist. At the same time, Bennett [Cerf, the head of Random House] called Alan Collins and asked him openly what did he have against Random House for this book, since they buy a lot of books from him, putting Alan on the spot very badly, because it isn’t done. And incidentally, that made a very good impression on me. Because that’s exactly what I would have done. And it’s going against that mealy-mouthed pretense, you know, of never stating anything openly.
The result of it all was that I told Alan I would very much like to have this [meeting]…. And it was the best and the most exciting publishing meeting I have ever had in my career. . . . What I liked immediately was the enormously open, intellectual, active attitude of the Random House boys. That is, they spoke as I would want publishers to speak. They faced ideas openly. They, in effect, heard what you said. There was an enormous air of enthusiasm, and they answered all my questions straight. I had prepared in my mind certain lists of questions to ask all publishers as leads to what I can expect in the future.”
At the meeting, Cerf came up with what Ayn Rand called “a brilliant idea, which really got him the book.” Cerf proposed a sort of “philosophic contest,” in which the book would be submitted to multiple publishers (which was almost never done), but not for financial bidding. “I would ask the publishers to read it and to tell me what their attitude would be philosophically and ideologically. How they would handle the book and how they felt about it. And, by the answers, I would then be able to judge whom I wanted to submit to first, which was an unusually daring idea.”
There was a second occurrence at her meeting that convinced her to sign with Random House. Ayn Rand had not said anything about the plot or even the theme, but she did tell them that “it is an extreme, uncompromising defense of capitalism and free enterprise, and presents a new philosophy” and that it would be opposed by both the political left and right. Then, Donald Klopfer (Cerf”s partner) asked: “But if this is an uncompromising defense of capitalism, wouldn’t you have to clash with the Judeo-Christian tradition of ethics?”
That, said Ayn Rand, “was the second touch that got them the book. . . . I had never heard anyone else, in person or in print, ever observe this. That he was that philosophical pleased me enormously. So I enthusiastically told him yes, of course it would, and that is one of the main points I’m presenting—a new morality, a moral defense of capitalism without which it can”t be defended because it does clash with the Judeo-Christian tradition. Well, that didn”t frighten him at all. It seemed to make him more interested.”
In a review that Ayn Rand labeled “junk,” the Christian Science Monitor, apparently thinking that the novel was intended as commentary on current events, lamented that it had no relevance because the American economy was booming. It also attacked the book for being full of extremes and absolutes, with no middle ground or compromise; in fact, it argued, had the heroes exercised their “political responsibility,” they wouldn”t have been taken over.
The review on the front page of the New York Herald-Tribune Book Review was written by well-known conservative John Chamberlain, who praised the book as “monumental” and “inspired.” He thought that the philosophic lesson was that government interference with private property will destroy the economy. The one fault he found was the rejection of Christian morality. “To the Christian, everyone is redeemable. But Ayn Rand’s ethical hardness may repel those who most need her message: that charity should be voluntary. . . . She should not have tried to rewrite the Sermon on the Mount.”
The review in the New Yorker called the theme unbelievable and pointless. “After all,” wrote the reviewer, “to warn contemporary America against abandoning its factories, neglecting technological progress and abolishing the profit motive seems a little like admonishing water against running uphill.”
The New York Times selected Granville Hicks as its reviewer. Hicks, a member of the Communist Party while an editor at Macmillan in 1936, had tried unsuccessfully to prevent Macmillan from publishing Ayn Rand’s first novel, We the Living. Hicks didn’t consider Atlas Shrugged to be a serious novel, and he made fun of the fact that it had heroes and villains, and concluded that the book was written out of hate, his “evidence” being that the action took place in a dying New York City.
One of the few positive reviews in a major national publication came in The Wall Street Journal, whose reviewer identified the fact that Ayn Rand favored selfishness and individualism. He concluded his review by pointing out that Miss Rand provided a bright future at the end by having a character add “freedom of trade and production” to the rights guaranteed by the Constitution.
While Time magazine made fun of the philosophy, the story and Ayn Rand’s writing, Newsweek wrote: “Despite laborious monologues, the reader will stay with this strange world, borne along by its story and eloquent flow of ideas.”
The prestigious Saturday Review of Literature called Ayn Rand a writer of dazzling virtuosity and Atlas Shrugged the equivalent of a 15th-century morality play which challenges the welfare state and the whole Christian ethic. However, the book, it said, is over-simplified with its good guys and bad guys, has too much philosophy, demolishes straw men and is shot through with hatred: of moralists, mystics, income taxes, professors, altruists, Communism and Christianity. The reviewer concluded that Ayn Rand’s solution was the same as that of 19th-century altruists: a small, controlled Utopia.
The Catholic press was scandalized by Ayn Rand”s abandonment of God and her belief that we have a right to exist for ourselves. Commonweal complained about the opposition to Original Sin and the lack of compassion, charity and humility. Another Catholic reviewer called it the most immoral and destructive book he”d ever read but was mollified that its more than 500,000 words would not endure. (Fifty years later, the novel sells more than 125,000 copies annually.) Yet another Catholic reviewer opined that Ayn Rand subscribed not to reason but to rationalism, or why else would she sneer at anything mystical.
The most negative review was published (and recently reprinted) in the conservative National Review, which selected as its reviewer another ex-Communist, Whittaker Chambers. Chambers began by calling the book excruciatingly awful and remarkably silly, a book which no sensible person would take seriously. He hated its black-and-white characters and thought her message to be materialism, and he even attacked the pursuit of happiness as a worthwhile goal. He wrote that Ayn Rand’s overriding arrogance and dogmatism meant she was a Nazi who would send her opponents to gas chambers.
The attacks and extreme opposition in the reviews shocked her publisher and helped convince Ayn Rand of what she called “the intellectual bankruptcy of our age,” and of the need to educate the public about her radical philosophy and its applications to the culture. Over the final 25 years of her life, she proceeded to do just that, writing dozens of nonfiction essays about her ideas, and teaching those ideas to a generation of “new intellectuals”—who have carried on her intellectual legacy to this day.
The initial press run for the first paperback edition by New American Library in 1959 was 150,000 copies. Again, it had net sales of nearly 70,000 copies in the first 12 months.
Ayn Rand observed that most of her books showed a gradual increase in sales over time, and, stimulated by “word of mouth,” they were reaching “my kind of readers.” The novel appeared on the paperback best-seller list of the New York Times on at least a couple of occasions; #8 on January 15, 1961, and #9 on April 7, 1963.
By 2011, more than 8,000,000 copies of Atlas Shrugged had been sold by its English-language publishers (a British edition was published by Penguin Modern Classics in 2007).
Most remarkable about a novel in print for 55 years is the increasingly strong trend in sales over recent years. Paperback sales by New American Library to the book trade averaged 74,300 copies a year in the 1980s, 95,300 copies a year in the 1990s, 166,933 copies a year in the 2000s, and 261,673 copies a year in the 2010s (based on two years’ sales). After 55 years, annual sales are reaching all-time highs. Penguin Group (USA) currently publishes four print editions: hardcover, two trade paperback editions and one mass-market edition as well as several eBook editions.
In 2009, annual sales reached an all-time high of 520,000 copies.